Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Crimes and Misdemeanors

After another good meal the at the Taji DFAC, I walked outside with my friends Alex and Dave to discover that my bike was stolen from the bike rack I left it in. I didn’t lock it up before going into the mess hall because I had left it out there every night for the last few weeks and no one messed with it. That night was the first night I went to dinner a little late, when it was already dark, and the thief took advantage of the darkness. The bike only cost me $20 second hand from another soldier, so it certainly wasn’t a financial disaster. But I was angry both with the thief and with myself because my mother had just sent me a bike lock to use. Shrugging it off, I walked back to work and was then made the butt of several jokes amongst my fellow officers.

The same night, my spirits were lifted by the delivery of two care packages—one from my father and another from my Uncle’s friend at Unilever. Since I didn’t want to carry them the half mile back to my barracks, I decided to drop them off using our beat-up old John Deere Gator utility vehicle. I brought the two boxes out to the Gator, absentmindedly dropped them in the open bed in the back, and began fumbling in the dark with the lock on the steering wheel. I drove back to the barracks, got out of the vehicle to get my two boxes, but realized that there was only one box in the back! One must have fallen out. Oh, no. I immediately retraced my path, keeping an eye out for a cardboard box lying around in the dirt, but found none. How could this have happened? It must have fallen out on one of the many sand bag speed bumps or on a sharp turn I made. Having confidence that someone must have seen the box in the 2 minutes I was gone and picked it up in a good natured gesture to later return to me, I wrote the box off as lost only for the night.

One week later, I still have not seen my Dad’s care-package. The pretzels and cookies in it are probably long gone, having found their way through some other soldier’s digestive track. If all of this dishonesty in one night seems improbable, I’ll give the soldiers on Taji the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Explosive Ordnance Disposal found the box, considered it a suspicious package, and blew the thing to bits? But having not seen any singed wet wipes, cookie crumbs, or pieces of the Bergen Record newspaper laying anywhere along route I took that night, I have to admit that the suspicious package explosion thing probably didn’t happen. In the meantime, I hope that the unhealthy cookies cause a serious bout of digestive complications for the person(s) who took my box, and perhaps contribute in a small way to the growth of a second chin.

After having spent a day checking out every bike that I saw (Taji isn’t that big, after all) and eyeing all bike riders as possible suspects, I went to dinner with my friends. On my way in to the mess hall, I took a quick look at the bikes in the rack. One on the right side was the same shape and style as mine; only it was spray-painted completely white. Upon closer inspection, I blurted out to my friends, “This is my bike.” I spent the next few minutes noticing all the identical features, including the Krypton headlight I recently installed, the identical brand name, blue color (underneath the shoddy spray paint job), helmet, gear shifter stuck in one gear, seat tilted too high upward in the front, etc. I could also see spray paint marks on the tires, indicating that the spray job was very recent. It was my bike. I couldn’t believe it. I waited outside at a distance for a while to confront the person who might lay claim to the bike but no one walked over to it. I was hungry so I brought the bike to the mess hall’s guard shack to have the guards look after it while I ate, so the thief may have walked out and saw the bike missing and took off. The sheer stupidity of placing the bike in the same rack with such a shoddy paint job leads me to believe that the person either 1) slept on it and reconsidered what a dumb idea it was to steal a bike on an Army base, 2) found out it was a bad bike (the brakes stink and the gears don’t shift), or 3) felt bad about it and left it in the same rack for me to find on my way to dinner. Either way, I sleep here at Camp Taji with the knowledge that a share with this base with at least one moron.

Here is what my bike looks like now. I acutally kinda like the new color scheme. Thanks man!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

At the DFAC

Since nothing much is going on, I decided to write about what us Taji-confined soldiers truly cherish most: the Dining Facility (DFAC, Armyspeak for mess hall). Conveniently situated only one mile from our living area, the DFAC is well worth the trudge through the heat, dusty parking lots, and PortaPotty-induced olfactory horrors that make Camp Taji the wonderful place I already know it to be.

I spend about 2 hours a day at the mess hall so I wanted to write a little bit about it. The Taji DFAC looks nothing like the stereotypical mess hall. It is well-lit, clean, offers a great selection of foods, and is run by civilian contractors. I have to hand it to Gulf Catering, the contractor who runs our mess hall. Their dozens of Indian servers do a really good job and are very nice to us troops coming through the lines. On the days the DFAC serves chicken or beef curry, you’ll see a line of Indian workers wrapped around the side of the mess hall. That’s how I know its good curry. Their company is a subcontractor for KBR, which is a subsidiary of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s old firm. Evidently, our Vice President is very good at contracting things out, just as he contracted out his responsibility to serve in the Vietnam War to less fortunate Americans by obtaining five draft deferments.

At breakfast, I am put in the enviable position of deciding amongst a made-to-order omelet, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hash browns, grits, French toast, pancakes, and oatmeal. Just when I think I’ve seen enough food to last me all day, there is the cereal table. Alongside the blander Cheerios and Special K boxes are the more decadent cereals like Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms, and Cocoa Puffs, treats my Mom never let me touch. Because she is now 10,000 miles away, I’m already starting to put on a little weight, something I thought was not possible due to my naturally high metabolism. Oh well, I have a lot of time to work it off before returning to the States next spring.

Lunch and dinner feature more of the same, but even go more overboard in terms of the variety of foods served. Overboard is nice, but I have to ask myself how much KBR charges the U.S. Government for a soldier to eat a meal here. That issue being way above my level as a lowly Battalion Logistics Officer, I instead focus on only what I throw on my plate. For lunch, I can get a sandwich, soup, burgers, hot dog, cheese steak, salad, pizza, tacos, rice, mashed potatoes, fruit, and just about any other basic sort of food. Dinner is equally good. We even get crab legs on Sunday, although the shells are dangerously sharp. Probably the most dangerous thing I do all week, breaking up crab legs in a hostile fire zone is not a task I take lightly.

A recent lunch at the DFAC: no, those aren't worms on the steak. They're onions.
Side note: I’ll be going to Australia with my friend Alex in late November for a two week R&R. I decided to take my vacation early this time around. Let me know if you’ll be in Sydney around Thanksgiving time!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Settling in

I read all of your responses and agree that I should keep on writing. I understand that it’s important to read a first hand account of what many soldiers go through on a daily basis here. Plus, I enjoy writing and it’s a good way to communicate with my family and friends.

My unit is responsible for manning several guard towers and entry control points around Camp Taji. We haven’t had any incidents yet, except for the other day when some gunfire (I think celebratory) hit near one of our towers. Camp Taji has been really quiet so far. The outgoing force protection officer said that the area around this base use to be really violent. Mortar and rocket attacks were a common occurrence up until a month ago.

Our guard towers are now made of concrete and bulletproof glass, so our soldiers are pretty safe on their shifts and still able to fire their weapons out when they need to. Only a few months ago, the towers were made of just steel and wood. The unit we replaced had a female soldier severely wounded by shrapnel from an RPG blast and another soldier sniped from a high-powered rifle. The bullet grazed his ear, miraculously went in his helmet on one side, curved around the inside back of his helmet, and exited the other side.

The main highway in Iraq, MSR (main supply route) Tampa, skirts the western wall of our base and is probably the most dangerous road in the world. I live about 300 yards from this road and can see the tops of the trucks driving by at all hours of the day. I used to drive on MSR Tampa back in 2003 with no body armor and no armor on my Humvee. Times have definitely changed. Although the portion of MSR Tampa near Camp Taji has been safe this month, there are still incidents. Two months ago, an American ASV (the vehicle in the above picture) ran over a pressure plate mine on the highway only 30 yards from one of the guard towers. Despite the mine’s small charge, the explosion was powerful enough to flip the ASV over. Almost immediately, the vehicle caught fire and the soldiers inside got trapped and were burned to death. The soldiers in the nearest guard tower inside the base perimeter had to stand helplessly by as the soldiers screamed in agony. My friend who went out to assist said he is still haunted by the sound of those soldiers dying.

We’ve been busy over the last few days improving our buildings and surrounding areas. Our new headquarters building was an empty shell when we got here so we have our work cut out for us. As the logistics officer, I’m setting up some contracts for things such as gravel, vehicles, blast walls, copiers, and printers. The work keeps me busy and allows me to meet a lot of different people on the base, from 1st Cavalry Division guys to KBR (Kellog Brown and Root) to Iraqis who come into our base to sell items that the Army needs.

Hope you all enjoyed the update. I'll write more when I get a chance.